Some Iraq Hawks Still Haven't Learned the War's Horrific Costs

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Without ever having confronted the toll, some hawks are now agitating for an attack on Iran

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Bill Kristol once observed in The Weekly Standard that anyone pondering war against Iraq had to confront what would happen after an invasion. "American and alliance forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators," he wrote. "Indeed, reconstructing Iraq may prove to be a less difficult task than the challenge of building a viable state in Afghanistan. The political, strategic and moral rewards would also be even greater. A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed; the Palestinians more willing to negotiate seriously with Israel; and Saudi Arabia with less leverage over policymakers here and in Europe. Removing Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from power presents a genuine opportunity to transform the political landscape of the Middle East."

As U.S. forces prepare to withdraw from Iraq, most of these predicted benefits have proven illusory. Despite his misjudgments, however, Kristol's confidence in his own strategic advice is sufficiently exalted that he is willing to agitate for a new war. "This Iranian regime has the blood of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan on its hands. It's a sponsor and facilitator of terror organizations that have killed innocent Americans, Israelis, Iraqis, Afghans, Argentinians, and many others," he writes. "It's a brutal dictatorship. And it's seeking nuclear weapons while denying it's doing so. It's long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands--force. And now we have an engraved invitation to do so. The plot to kill the Saudi ambassador was a lemon. Statesmanship involves turning lemons into lemonade."

In a country that grasped what President Lincoln meant when he said that "war at the best, is terrible," it would be discrediting, perhaps even seen as pathological, to compare the risky killing of faraway people to making lemonade. But nowadays Americans are not so averse to wars of choice, partly because a volunteer army, a secure homeland, and a jingoistic press shields us from its realities. We're a nation at war in multiple foreign lands; and for most of us, it's quite easy to forget the men and women serving, or the collateral damage we cause, or even that we're at war.  

The costs, however, are real.

As the last troops prepare to come home from Iraq -- hawks like Kristol eying the globe lustily for where they might be redeployed -- it's an opportune moment to attempt an uncomfortable accounting.

Let us confront and grasp the costs of the Iraq War.

NON-IRAQIS KILLED

So far, 4,482 American troops have been killed in Iraq, at least 1,287 of them younger than 22-years-old. That means almost 10,000 grieving mothers and fathers, perhaps as many siblings, many hundreds of widows, orphaned children, and tens of thousands of devastated friends, cousins, colleagues. Still, unless you live in the sort of community that sends a lot of its young into the Armed Forces, those numbers are probably an abstraction, a theoretical tragedy that you cannot connect to names or faces because the devastation is concentrated in a subculture to which you don't belong.

Here is one way to make it a little bit more real. Imagine all the players in the NBA. The familiar ones, like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, and Pao Gasol, plus all their teammates, down to the last guy on the bench. Imagine every last one of them killed in Iraq. Then add all the players in the NFL. The quarterbacks and running-backs and wide receivers, but also the offensive linemen, the special teams guys, the punters and field goal kickers, all the way down to the last guy on the bench. All killed in the Iraq War. And then add to that every last player in Major League Baseball, everyone on the expanded roster before the playoffs start, including the sluggers at the top of the batting order and the last relief pitcher who seldom steps on the mound. If all of those guys were killed too, you still wouldn't have equaled the number of American military personnel killed in the Iraq War.

In addition to every player in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, you'd have to add every last member of the 2008 US Summer Olympic Team, even the synchronized swimmers. And if all were killed in Iraq, you'd still need to add every member of Congress, the House and the Senate, at which point you'd be 5 people short of the actual number of American military men and woman killed.

Of course, Americans didn't fight alone.

179 British troops died. 33 Italians, 23 Poles, 18 Ukrainians, 11 Spanish, 7 Danes, 5 El Salvadorans, 4 Slovaks, and 4 Georgians were killed. Plus 3 Latvians, 3 Romanians, 2 Australians, 2 Estonians, 2 Netherlanders, 2 Thais, a Czech, a Hungarian, a South Korean, a Kazakh, and a man from Azerbaijan. At least 528 non-Iraqi civilians have been killed during the Iraq War. And 149 journalists, including Michael Kelly, then editor of this magazine, were killed covering it.

IRAQIS KILLED AND DISPLACED

The Brookings Institute estimates that 115,250 Iraqi civilians were killed during the war. Iraq Body Count puts the figure at between 103,158 and 112,724 people. Other estimates of excess deaths from the war, such as the Lancet survey and the Opinion Research Business survey, are substantially higher, but it is enough here to grapple with the most conservative estimates.

Using roughly 100,000 dead for the sake of ease, so many Iraqi civilians were killed that the country could've suffered 36 attacks on the order of 9/11 -- or if it helps to think of it this way, a 9/11 attack every single month for three full years -- and the body count would still fall short of what the country of Iraq actually suffered. Of course, America was understandably devastated by the 9/11 dead, though we live in a country of roughly 300 million people. Circa 2003 Iraq had 25 million people. If the United States suffered civilian casualties proportional to the low end of Iraqi civilian death estimates, it would be equivalent to us losing around 1.2 million people. It would be as if everyone in San Francisco were killed -- and then another 300,000 Americans were killed too.

But that comparison understates how devastating the war has been to Iraq, because it ignores Iraqi combatants who've been killed, and neither does it address displaced persons. By a conservative estimate, 3,700,000 Iraqis have been displaced from their homes by the war. By way of comparison, a year after Hurricane Katrina, the population of a devastated New Orleans had shrunk by 378,000 people. Or put another way, if you cleared every last person out of Los Angeles, you could fill the city back up to its current population with displaced Iraqis. 

AND THERE'S MORE

There have been at least 32,213 U.S. troops wounded in the Iraq War, and "up to 31 percent of soldiers returning from combat in Iraq experience depression or post-traumatic stress disorder that affects their jobs, relationships, or home life," CNN reported in June, citing Army research. "For as many as 14 percent of these veterans, depression and PTSD cause severe problems in their daily life. These problems are often accompanied by alcohol misuse and aggressive behavior." In 2007, Time marked the 500th American to have at least a limb amputated due to war injuries.

Through July 31, 2011, the Department of Defense had allocated $704.6 billion to the War in Iraq. That's roughly $2,300 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Of course, that doesn't include indirect costs, including increased health care costs for Iraq War veterans. David Leonhardt once reached a conservative estimate of $1.2 trillion for the war's ultimate price-tag, and used it to muse on the opportunity cost we have paid for ousting Saddam Hussein.

"For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign -- a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children's lives. Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn't use up even half our money pot," he wrote. "So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds. The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place -- better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation -- could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban's recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur."

FOOL US ONCE...

Before we invaded Iraq, the Bush Administration estimated total costs at $50 to $60 billion. At that time, many Americans argued that the figure made the war more costly than it was worth. But hawks like Kristol won the day. "Removing Saddam Hussein from power by military means makes sense because it is just, it is doable, and the likely costs to innocent civilians and American forces are low," he wrote in October 2002. Estimating how long the Iraq War would take to win, Kristol wrote in 2003 that George W. Bush could postpone dealing with Kim Jong-il and that "in a few months, after the Iraq operation is complete, he can turn his attention to North Korea."

Eight years later, American boots still on the ground in Iraq, Kristol seemingly hasn't learned a thing, humility least of all. "The next speech we need to hear from the Obama administration should announce that, after 30 years, we have gone on the offensive against this murderous regime," he wrote in his already quoted call to arms against Iran. "And the speech after that can celebrate the fall of the regime, and offer American help to the democrats building a free and peaceful Iran." He makes it sound easy, doesn't he? Anyone who believes him again is a damned fool.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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